Through the Pass of Thermopylae lay the entrance from the north to the south of Greece. It was this pass that the Greeks determined to hold against the Persians when they withdrew from the Pass of Tempe.
The Pass of Thermopylae was about a mile long and the narrow road ran between the mountains and the sea. At each end of the pass the mountains were sheer cliffs, descending so close to the sea that the only pathway was a mere strip of sand.
To enter the pass, at either end, it was necessary to go through a narrow entrance called Pylae or the Gates. In the road between the Pylae or Gates there were hot springs. The Greek word for hot is thermos, and that is how the pass came to be named Thermopylae or Hot-Gates.
At the narrowest part of the pass stood an old broken-down wall, and this wall was repaired by the order of Leonidas, King of Sparta, that it might form a defence against the enemy.
A short distance from the mainland lay the island of Euboea, the strait between being at one place only two and a half miles in breadth. Here the Greek fleet took up its position under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades, Themistocles being second in command. Themistocles would have held the chief command had not some of the States refused to serve under an Athenian admiral.
The land army was led by Leonidas, one of the kings of Sparta. But because this was now the month of June 480 b.c. , the time when the Olympic games were held, many of the Spartans did not march with Leonidas to Thermopylae. For although the country was in danger, the games, being also religious rites, must be held as usual, and numbers of brave soldiers stayed at home to take part in the festival.
When Leonidas set out on his march to defend the entrance to the south of Greece, he had with him only three hundred Spartans. On the way to Thermopylae he was joined by troops from other States, so that when he reached the pass he was at the head of seven thousand men.
Now there was only one narrow hill track by which the enemy could reach the rear of the Spartans, and strangers to the country were little likely to find it. Yet Leonidas bade the Phocians, who lived in the district, guard well this narrow footpath. He would leave nothing to chance.
When Xerxes with his great army reached Thermopylae, he was told that it was in the hands of a small band of Spartans, under king Leonidas. The tidings did not disturb the Persian monarch, he was sure that the Spartans would soon leave their post, when they saw his great army.
But the Spartans did not retreat, although they could see plainly the vast hordes that had come against them.
By and by Xerxes grew impatient and sent a horseman to reconnoitre. The horseman could not see the Spartan camp, for it was hidden by the old wall that had been repaired, but he could see the men themselves without the wall. Their arms were piled up against it in stacks, as though no enemy was near. Some of the soldiers were wrestling with each other, others were combing their hair, as if they were getting ready for a festival rather than for a battle.
The Persian was astonished at what he saw. As the Spartans took no notice of him, he stayed to count their number, and then rode quietly back to tell Xerxes all that he had seen.
Xerxes, too, was amazed. Why should soldiers trouble to comb their hair before fighting? Why should they wrestle with one another as though no danger lay before them? He thought that they were doing "childish and silly things," for he did not understand that this was the Spartans' way of getting ready either to die or to slay their enemies.
In the Persian camp was an exiled King of Sparta, named Demaratus. Xerxes sent for him to ask why his countrymen wasted their time, wrestling and combing their long curls.
"These men," answered Demaratus, "are here to fight for the pass; and when they have to face a mortal danger, their custom is to comb and deck out their hair. Be sure then, that if thou canst conquer these and all the rest who remain behind in Sparta, there is no other nation which shall dare to raise a hand against thee, for now art thou face to face with the bravest men of all Hellas."
But Xerxes laughed at the thought of a small band of men like the Spartans daring to fight against his great army. He dismissed Demaratus and sent to demand that the Spartans should give up their arms. But the only answer that Leonidas sent back was to bid the king "to come and take them." It was plain that the Spartans did not fear the enemy. When one of them was told that the Persian host was so numerous that "the flight of their arrows would darken the light of the sun," he answered carelessly, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade."
For four days Xerxes waited, expecting the Spartans to flee, but on the fifth day they were still there, wrestling and combing their hair as before.
Then the king sent a band of soldiers to the enemy's camp, bidding it take these bold Spartans alive and bring them bound into his presence.
But the Persians could not push their way through the narrow gates which were guarded by the enemy. They were not only kept at bay, they were thrust back again and again, and many of their number were slain by the long spears of the Spartans.